Sunday, November 20, 2005
On the way to Thomaston to pick up his dead fatherâ€™s things, Jeboriah Taylor found himself thinking back on the events that had shaped his life. He wasnâ€™t usually one to dwell upon old memories, particularly those that involved his father. What was done was done; if you spent your life looking back, you had the tendency to keep running into walls. But tonight was different. Tonight was a celebration of sorts, a new chapter. Tonight he would finally be free.
Drinking and yelling, thatâ€™s what he remembered about his daddy. That and the thing his daddy had done, the thing that nobody in this town could ever forget, no matter how hard they tried. The thing that had shaped the familyâ€™s reputation in everyoneâ€™s eyes forever.
And all that somehow had to do with another funny thing; the confrontation he had this morning with his Gramma Ruth, who was still alive, but going senile. He could never be sure if Ruth was following things or not. She hadnâ€™t been truly herself for years. But this morning her eyes had been unusually bright, and he knew she was having one of her clear days. Jeb hadnâ€™t been sure if she even understood her son had died until then.
â€œYou going to that prison, Jeboriah?â€ sheâ€™d said, when he walked through the kitchen on his way to the door.
â€œLater today. I gotta pick up his things.â€
â€œThereâ€™s nothing of his that suits a boy like you. Heâ€™s dead, Jeboriah. I donâ€™t want his things in this house. I donâ€™t want him buried near your Momma and I donâ€™t want any service.â€ She peered at him until he got the uncomfortable feeling she could see right through his head and glimpse what he was thinking. â€œI want him buried somewhere far away from here. And I want you to promise me. Promise me you wonâ€™t even look at his things. Donâ€™t touch them. Just throw them away.â€
Jeb started to say something, but she had turned back to the stove and he could see she was already fading away, that light in her eyes a swiftly sputtering candle. Anything else he said would make little difference to her. He left her staring aimlessly into space, a smile on her face, as if she were thinking of things far away from him and her dead son.
What the hell all that had meant, he couldnâ€™t say. Maybe she hadnâ€™t been having one of her clear days after all, maybe her mind had run out on her again. But none of that really mattered anymore. Now he felt the dark all around him and the loneliness of the open road and he thought to himself, tonight Iâ€™ll finally be free of it all. Free forever.
Route One wound its way along the coast, through the old sea towns and stretches of thick woods. The road was already narrow and the way the pine trees crowded the shoulder made the corners tend to sneak up on you. But Jeb Taylor drove like he might take off at any moment, lift right off the ground and into space like some nightmare ship bound for the stars. He felt a strange kinship with the darkness of space, the way heâ€™d heard talk about the coldness up there, the distance. He felt like outrunning whatever was chasing him, but no matter how fast the car went, whatever it was kept right on behind.
The carâ€™s headlights sliced through the darkness ahead and the sixty-nine Chevy gobbled up asphalt and spit it out behind, dual side pipes growling like a wounded bear. Nothing like a sixty-nine for pure, raw speed. The seats were big and slippery and the clutch was looser than a whore, but the engine was good old USA steel. Gas tank could eat a twenty quicker than you could turn around, but ainâ€™t nobody gonna catch me out here unless heâ€™s Superman. Jeb used to watch Superfriends on Saturdays, and he always thought a good double barrel in the chest would stop the Wonder Twins, and maybe Aquaman because he was such a pussy and talked to fish, but Superman could do anything. Superman was made of pure steel.
Into a straightaway the car surged again, the speedometer ticking up past eighty and still climbing as the tires scrambled for purchase. The dash lights were green and pulsed slowly as the alternator struggled along under the hood. Jebâ€™s face seemed to pulse like a bullfrogâ€™s throat. He smelled burning oil and hot rubber, watching the road with one hand gripping the wheel, the other piloting the stereo controls.
The oldies station was playing one of his favorites by the Thunder Five;
Good doctor-man, can ya lend me a hand
Thereâ€™s a feelinâ€™ I get and I donâ€™t understand
Gotta fever burninâ€™ in my brain
Good doctor-man, â€˜fraid Iâ€™m going insane
The song suited his mood just fine. What was it like to go crazy anyway? Was it like old Annie Arsenault out at the swap shop who sometimes forgot her own name and wandered around outside buck naked? Crazy old witch sometimes made it all the way down Route Twenty-seven to town before anyone saw her. Jebâ€™s Gramma Ruth used to find her sitting on a bench outside the Railway Cafe wearing nothing but a straw hat, and when she tried to get her in the car old Annie Arsenault would tell her to go to hell.
Maybe, he thought, your daddy could have told you something about crazy. But itâ€™s too late for that now.
Jeb took the next corner a little too fast, and fat tires squealed on tar as the big car swung sideways into the wrong lane. He wondered for a moment as he twisted the wheel and pumped the brakes if he was going to make it. Then the car righted itself and he was left wondering whether he was actually trying to kill himself or whether he was just plain stupid. He drummed his fingers nervously on the steering wheel in time with the music. It was nerves, that was all. He had to be honest with himself, tonight of all nights; he was dreading what was ahead, what was waiting for him at the prison. Not for what his father could do to him physically, of course; it was way too late for that. Ronnie Taylor had died in his cell the night before from some kind of heart failure, and was already rotting away on a cold slab in the morgue.
No, Jeb was afraid of what other old memories might come floating to the surface. He hadnâ€™t even seen his father in ten years, never mind heard his voice. The sound of that voice wouldnâ€™t ever be able to touch him again; but he would surely see Ronnie Taylor in his dreams.
* * * * *
Thomaston State Prison was located just outside the town of Rockland, on a straight, dull stretch of Route One. It looked like a factory building, and you might think it was somebodyâ€™s place of business, except for the high fences and barbed wire. Jeb parked and went around to the visitorâ€™s entrance, where he was met by a fat guard with a black mustache and a stain on his blue prison shirt that looked like mustard. The guardâ€™s face was greasy and his collar ringed with sweat. â€œAbout goddamn time,â€ the fat guard said. His beady eyes blinked through pockets of fat. Jeb could see bits of white that clung to the hairs of the guardâ€™s mustache, remnants of his last meal. â€œTaylor, ainâ€™t it? What took you so long?â€
â€œSorry,â€ Jeb muttered. He tried but could not meet the guardâ€™s stare. This was what he hated the most about himself. When it came time to stand up to people, to show them who was boss, he just couldnâ€™t do it. People took one look at him and assumed control like this guard was doing already.
Fucking fat bastard. I oughta show you a thing or two . . .
But he didnâ€™t say anything, just followed numbly along as the guard led him through a maze of corridors and barred doors. The doors rolled and clanged shut heavily behind them, sounding like distant thunder. They saw no one, but now and again noises floated down from the prison cells that sounded more animal than human. The corridors were thick with the smell of hot male sweat. Jeb couldnâ€™t help thinking that this was where his father had spent the last ten years of his life, caged up like something less than a man. Something to be feared. But that was part of what his father had wanted, after all; and wasnâ€™t that just a little of what he wanted too? For people to take a step back when they saw him, for the other person to look away first?
At a desk they met a second guard propped up next to a wall of television screens, his feet on the counter, hands locked behind his head. This guard was short and completely bald, his head so shiny and smooth it reflected the lights in the ceiling. â€œWatched you come in,â€ he said, as the other guard disappeared into another room. â€œNice wheels.â€
â€œMy fatherâ€™s car. Restored it myself.â€
Jeb smiled at the man, wondering what he was thinking. Bet you think my daddy stole it, donâ€™t you, you prick? For all I know he did. But itâ€™s mine now.
The fat guard came back from the inner room carrying a stack of papers in one hand and a suitcase in another. â€œThis is all Ronaldâ€™s things,â€ he said, dropping the suitcase on the floor. â€œThere ainâ€™t a lot. Few old clothes, couple of books and girlie mags. You donâ€™t go out shopping much when youâ€™re in for murder, eh? No field trips to the mall.â€ He grinned, then slapped the papers down on the counter. â€œYou need to sign a few places here.â€ He pointed with a pen. â€œHere, and here.â€
â€œYouâ€™re Ronnie Taylorâ€™s son,â€ the bald guard said, as if heâ€™d figured out a riddle. He took his feet off the counter and sat up. â€œYou must be how old, eighteen, nineteen maybe? I donâ€™t remember seeing you around here.â€
â€œMe and my father arenâ€™t too close. Werenâ€™t, I mean.â€ Jeb straightened up and handed the signed papers to the fat guard.
â€œDidnâ€™t like him much?â€ the bald guard asked, persisting.
â€œRonnie was an ornery bastard,â€ the fat guard interrupted. â€œAlways causing an uproar around here, getting the inmates going so as weâ€™d have to lock him up in solitary. Son of a bitch.â€ He looked at Jeb with little squinting pig eyes. Some crumbs fell off his mustache onto his shirt. â€œNo offense.â€
Jeb wanted to leave. The fat guard was blocking the door. â€œYou said you wanted him buried, right?â€ the guard said. â€œPotterâ€™s Field, eh? No service?â€
Yeah, you fat sick blubbering pig, now get the fuck out of my way.
He nodded. â€œThatâ€™s right.â€
â€œJust making sure. Normally the funeral parlor has them cremated if nobody claims the body. The parlor will send you a bill for the plot.â€
â€œDepends.â€ The guard paused, squinted at him as if sizing up the competition. â€œCosts less to cremate. What the fuck you care, anyway?â€
Both guards were looking at him now. Jebâ€™s throat felt as if it were about to close; he was starting to sweat. He looked at the floor. The corners of the room were yellow and crusted with dirt.
â€œMaybe you ought to talk it over with the rest of the family?â€
â€œNo. Cremate him.â€
The fat guard looked like heâ€™d just won something. He led Jeb back through the dim hallways, unlocking and locking the doors as they went. Each one clanged again, and this time the sounds seemed hollow, following them as they continued to the outer doors. Jeb carried his fatherâ€™s suitcase in his right hand, the handle slippery under his sweating fingers. An image of the bald guard hung in his mind; watching him through the cameras, hands clutching his belly, laughing. Those damn guards had been laughing at him the whole time, but what was he going to do about it?
If I were back there now Iâ€™d shut their mouths. He imagined jacking the fat guard up against the wall with his forearm, holding him there while he gave the other one a look, saying, donâ€™t fuck with me, Iâ€™ll look through my fatherâ€™s things whenever I goddamn please. The other one just standing white-faced, nodding yes sir, whatever you say sir.
The plastic handle of the suitcase felt as if it were on fire in his hand. He imagined something moving around inside, thumping and wriggling and bulging. Popping the latch, lifting the lid, feeling things flying out at him, liquid screams through open mouths, nightmares and memories of nightmares thrusting their cold, moist jaws into his face. And he felt that if he opened it now it would be like opening up his fatherâ€™s life again, ready to swallow him whole.
Ronnieâ€™s an ornery bastard.
Maybe he was, Jeb thought. But not anymore. My daddyâ€™s dead now, and nothing else. Iâ€™m free now, you hear me?
He left the fat guard behind and when he was out of sight of the doors, he broke into a run for the car.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.